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Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Teen singing sensation Deanna Durbin made her best film the second time out with ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL/’37. But she peaked as a ‘pop phenom’ when Robert Stack planted a first screen kiss on her in FIRST LOVE, a contempo take on Cinderella. It sure sounds like a indigestible hunk of sentiment, but someone @ Universal had the clever idea of making this Cinderella an orphan, with horrid step-relatives straight out of ‘screwball-comedy.’ It’s just as much MY MAN GODFREY/’36 as Charles Perrault fairy tale; right down to growly Eugene Pallette repeating his GODFREY role as Papa Bear. Things don’t exactly soar in the prologue (Deanna graduates from a Girls’ Academy, but no one bothers to show), but once she hits the family mansion where her awful aunt, uncle & cousins live, the old plot works like a charm. And note how smartly Henry Koster helms the big ballroom sequence; not just beautifully paced, with a real swing to it, but also psychologically smart, and with some neatly handled special effects. The film lays things on a bit thick right at the end, but it retains much of its original charm.

But by 1947, the Durbin franchise was clearly running out of steam. She’d been playing the ingenue for over a decade and those chubby cheeks which probably helped the voice resonate, also prefigured a more general chubbiness. It was time for a makeover. And how! Suddenly, Deanna’s fetchingly trim, almost chic, singing Verdi (with Jan Peerce!, don’t ask) in a high soprano and swinging ‘pop’ stuff, via Johnny Green & Leo Robin, in an easy lower range; still, a natural. What’s not natural is the lame farce she's stuck in. An uncomfortable John Dall is a rich sot who thinks she was Grandpa’s mistress, and now a fortune hunting floozy. Deanna plays along, to see how the other half lives and teach him a lesson. Naturally, sparks fly . . . but only in the script. On screen, all the chemistry runs between Deanna & a terrific Donald O’Connor, as Dall’s schmo third cousin. Wasn’t anyone looking at the rushes? The whole film comes alive whenever these two share the screen. But there was no follow up. Durbin retired after two more films and O’Connor was paired with Francis the Talking Mule. Still, the film’s worth a look just to see O’Connor’s ‘I Love a Mystery’ numbo, an obvious precursor to his great ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN/’52.

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